Queer Theory origins – part 2 in the postmodernism series

This is the second in a number of synopses of a critique of postmodernism from the book Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Swift Press 2020. The first synopsis, which covers the early period of postmodernism, is here. The synopsis below is written by Daphna Whitmore.

Queer theory has been profoundly influential on the development of postmodern theory into its more recent applied forms. It derives directly from postmodernism and is about liberation from the normal, particularly norms of gender and sexuality. It is frustratingly difficult to understand since it values incoherence, illogic, and unintelligibility. As we noted in the earlier piece on postmodernism this ideology fixates on language and sees the world as social constructions.

Queer theory sees the concepts of sex – male and female – and gender – masculine and feminine- as oppressive. The main objective of queer theory is to subvert these concepts and to break them down. Rejecting the possibility of there being a knowable objective reality, queer theory asserts that language creates the categories, enforces them, and scripts people into them. The boundaries are arbitrary and oppressive according to queer theory. These boundaries can be blurred into apparent absurdity and thus erased.

Queer theory grew out of the radical groups revolutionising feminist, gay and lesbian studies in the 1960s. The civil rights movements helped spark a new interest in the study of homosexuality. Throughout Christian history male homosexuality had been considered a heinous sin. This contrasted with ancient Greek culture where it was acceptable for men to have sex with adolescent boys until they were ready to marry – at which point it was expected that they would switch to having sex with women. In both cases, however, homosexuality was something that people did rather than who they were.

The idea that one could be a homosexual gained recognition in the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century attitudes shifted until a dominant liberal position came to be accepted. “Some people are gay. Get over it”. Queer theory considers this liberal idea which stresses common humanity problematic. It is theorised as a problem both because it represents LGBT identities as stable categories and because it does not treat sexual orientations as social constructs built by the powerful in the service of dominance and oppression. Since queer theorists believe that sex, gender, and sexuality are social constructions, they are less concerned about material progress than about how dominant discourses erect and enforce categories like “male”, “feminine” and “gay”.


The founders of queer theory include Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. They drew significantly on the work of Michel Foucault and his concept of biopower – the power of scientific (biological) discourses. Unfortunately, they seem to have missed the point that biologically legitimising sex, gender, and sexuality statuses tends to lead people to become more accepting, rather than less.

“Discourses” – how things are spoken about – is a major focus of postmodernism. Following Foucault, queer theory examines history and points out that categories and discourses that were once accepted as sensible or true in their own time are not accepted as such now. This is then used to argue that categories such as male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual are also socially constructed by dominant discourses.

This is where the word queer comes in. “Queer” refers to anything that falls outside binaries (such as male/female, masculine/feminine, and heterosexual/homosexual) and to a way of challenging the links between sex, gender and sexuality.

Like other postmodern theories, queer theory is a political project. Its agenda is to challenge what is called normativity which is considered pejoratively. It produces a de facto coalition of minority gender and sexual identities under the appropriately unstable set of acronyms that tend to begin with LGBTQ. Its opposition to normativity is not confined to sex and gender, it has expanded to include time and space, and even queer theory itself.

This makes queer theory notoriously difficult to define, perhaps partly because being comprehensible would be inconsistent with queer theory’s radical distrust of language and would violate its ambition to avoid all categorisation, including of itself.

Papers that use queer theory usually begin by examining an idea, problematising it in “queering” or “genderfucking” ways and eventually concluding that there can be no conclusions. The incoherence of queer theory is an intentional feature, not a bug.

Few people are strict biological essentialists anymore, nearly everyone accepts that some combination of human biology and culture comes together to create expressions of sex, gender and sexuality. As evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson states, “No serious scholar would think that human behaviour is controlled the way animal instinct is, without the intervention of culture”.

The queer theorists take a different view. They are radically socially constructivist. There can be absolutely no quarter given to any discourse – even matters of scientific fact – that could be interpreted as promoting or legitimising biological essentialism. If biology makes any appearance in queer theoretical scholarship it is usually to problematise it as just one way of knowing that is encoded in the biases of powerful groups, such as straight men who identify as men; or to demonstrate something that no one denies – that intersex people exist. Intersex are used to obfuscate the facts that an overwhelming proportion of humans are either male- or female-sexed and that gender expression in humans is overwhelmingly bimodal in nature and strongly correlated with sex.

Foucault argues that power runs through the whole system of society, which he calls the “omnipresence of power”. Foucault considers power is present at all levels of society because certain knowledge has been legitimised and accepted as true. Consequently, speech is to be closely scrutinised for which discourses it is perpetuating, under the presumption that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other latent prejudices must be present in the discourses and thus endemic to the society that produces them. These basic premises of Foucault in the 1970s became the philosophical foundation of the queer theory of the 1990s which included a deep suspicion of science as an oppressive exercise of power rather than a knowledge producer, a skepticism of all categories that describe gender and sexuality, a commitment to social constructivism and an intense focus on language.

The next segment will look at the ideas and influence of Judith Butler.


  1. Though special character religious schools could exist they may not be able to be single sex, in which schools boys may do better. I think Otago University has 50% more female than male, now.

  2. Thanks for the piece. One objection however and this one is, unfortunately, a rather serious one. Intersex people are not people somehow without biological sex or between the two sexes. Each intersex person has a biological sex, and, surprise, surprise, it is one of two only. It is just that due to developmental disorders their outer genitalia do not match their genetic sex. There are several forms that this can take. While the condition is certainly a burden for intersex people, it is in no way different from many other developmental disorders, some of them far more common, some less severe, some more severe than this one. This should not come as a surprise either. Every once in the while the reproduction of a complex organism will not work perfectly. The interesting thing is that none of the numerous other disorders leads us to question the nature of humanity. That some people are only born with their milk teeth, for instance, and others with several sets of teeth, does not make us condem dentistry as some sinister conspiracy to oppress us all or see it as an art thriving on oversimplification. It is only when the sexual sphere at large is concerned that we apply different standards. In this we already accept the premises of queer theory. This is, I believe, to be avoided.

    • You are right to point out that people with intersex conditions are still male or female and not something ‘in between’. Indeed the intersex conditions themselves tend to be specifically male or female anomalies, such as Turner syndrome that only affects females. I don’t think the authors would argue otherwise. There is only one mention of intersex in the book and that is not even listed in the index.

      That’s a great point you make about how no other physical disorders lead to question the nature of humanity.

      • Thanks. The same point can me made about mental conditions and fixations and Gender Dysphoria, btw. There are countless people out there who are thoroughly convinced of experiencing things that are not objectifiable – quite often to the same degree that transsexuals are convinced they were born in the wrong body. There are people who believe God talks to them personally and tells them what to do – and more -, a surprsingly high number of people is convinced they were visited by deceased loved ones etc. This is very real to these people. As society, we do not attribute any power of evidence to these feelings. The lunatic fringe aside, no one in academic circles would consider it as proof of God’s existence if someone convincingly claims a Deity talks to him or her personally – let alone that such claims would be used to “deconstruct”, i.e. delegitimize, a rational worldview and scientific progress.

  3. From James Shaw’s Facebook today; “Today, in her maiden speech, new Green Party MP Elizabeth Kerekere laid out plans to introduce a Member’s Bill that would amend the Human Rights Act to include gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics as prohibited grounds for discrimination.”
    Would a non-intersex person have a gender identity? This would seem to introduce new things that they couldn’t be stopped from doing.

    • Oh crap… The nonsense about “gender identity” and “gender expression”. (And what the heck are sex characteristics in that context?) A non-intersex person, i.e. roughly around 99.98 per cent of the population, does or does not have a gender identity as the tiny rest, depending on whether one believes that gender identity exists or should exist.

      Now, one’s gender exists whether one identifies with it or not. It isn’t anything anyone can opt out of, no matter what queer theory and trans activists claim. Indeed, if gender identity were a thing as assumed in the Member’s Bill you refer to, the whole trans debate would be superfluous and no one would talk about it. It is precisely because this is not the case that it is an issue at all.

      Or in other words: A few people have problems with their own identity, and among those the identity problems of a small minority extends to their gender to a degree that they would rather be members of the opposite sex, thus being able to assume the other gender.

      And yes, in all discussions it inevitably boils down to the wish to change sex, not just gender, nonwithstanding the claim that according to the same people biological sex doesn’t exist. Hence hormone replacement therapies and surgeries on healthy bodies, up to castration and – often unsuccessful – reconstructions of outer genitalia in many cases.

      This is why we are having this discussion at all. It has nothing to do with intersex people – who, btw, regularly rebuff the attempty by queer theorists or trans activists to be drawn into the debate.

      And again, the thing here is: It is only a debate because Western society somehow fetishizes the sexual sphere at large and has declared it sacrosanct. If we looked at this the way we should look at other problems with one’s identity – i.e. with compassion and support but not with any degree of appropriation – we wouldn’t be having this debate at all.

      • “If we looked at this the way we should look at other problems with one’s identity – i.e. with compassion and support but not with any degree of appropriation – we wouldn’t be having this debate at all.” But if we do make laws are we going to have to require men to cover their chests in public?

      • chrisbaumgarten wrote: “And again, the thing here is: It is only a debate because Western society somehow fetishizes the sexual sphere at large and has declared it sacrosanct.” Indeed the naturist communities take away some of the power of the fetishizers. Naturism may even help against the eating disorder body dysphoria. What else?

      • Being an old leftist myself I am aware and appreciate that this is a Marxist blog. I am also aware that Naturism still has a strong following among what’s left of workers’ culture movements and parts of the traditionalist left. As it has among esoterics, who are not likely associates in the struggles against an esoteric society… So it is doubtful that promoting Naturism will help combat the many problems post modernism imposes on us – if that’s what you’re getting at.

  4. If we digress from the purpose of laws to regulate and to protect in order to have them cater to narratives of self proclaimed and merely potential victimhood, in other words, if we go down the lane of post modernism and abandon rationality as a concept upon which our society is based upon, then yes, we are going to have laws requiring men to cover their chests in public (and possibly in private unless the other person has “enthusiastically” consented to them baring their chest.) And then, yes, are we going to have laws banning us from using the word woman in public and other such things. Which, again, has nothing to do with intersex people.

  5. Hi Chris, thanks for your excellent contributions. It’s always good to come across calm, rational, scientific-minded people who are not swept up in the woke nonsense. Enjoyed the piece on the restrictions on basic democracy in Vienna as well!

  6. “It is frustratingly difficult to understand since it values incoherence, illogic, and unintelligibility.”

    Indeed. And this makes it ideal for oddballs and narcissists. So someone who dyes their hair a colour which doesn’t occur naturally in hair can declare themselves ‘queer’, when quuer used to be a derogatory term for gay people, especially gay men. Now, however, you don’t have to go to the actually problem of going out and connecting with other human beings (of the same sex) and having some sort of sex with them. You can stay in your own bathroom and dye your hair and that’s it.

    Words have been stripped of meaning and anyone can ‘identify’ as anything and claim some sort of *special* status on the basis of self-identity. Trite rules! Everyone has their own ‘truth’, there is no objective basis for reality and truth – the opposite of Marxism, although some of these narcissists and oddballs choose to identify themselves as being ‘Marxists’. But, again, you don’t have to actually argue for Marxist ideas; indeed, you can advocate the opposite of Marxist, and any sort of materialist, ideas.

    I think it was Miranda Yardley who first described these folks as the pampered offspring of neo-liberalism. How true!


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